The wind energy controversy in the Sandhills is gaining speed here in the capital city.
“The old saying in the Sandhills is ‘once you get sand in your boots, you can never get it all out,'” said Brent Steffen, a rancher in the Sandhills. “The Sandhills just becomes part of you.”
For ranchers like Steffen, the Sandhills are Nebraska’s best-kept secret. Now, some are afraid new energy development threatens the fragile ecosystem they call home.
“Now the secret is out, but it’s out for the wrong reason, for political gain,” said Melanie Coffman, who has ranched the land all her life.
A large group of farmers and ranchers came to Lincoln to meet with State Senator Tom Brewer, of Gordon. Much of their concern centers on the Nebraska Public Power District’s new R Project, a 225-mile power line that would run from Sutherland, near North Platte, up to Thedford in Cherry County, and then over to Holt County.
NPPD says the new line will stave off an overload like in 2012, when they saw an increased need for power to run irrigation systems during a drought. They say it will also provide a back-up path, so if one line gets knocked out by ice or bad weather, the state still has a steady power supply. Some ranchers say it’s just a ruse to capture land for wind energy production.
“If it goes through, we know what the implications are. It’ll be massive wind development,” said rancher Wayne Eatinger.
NPPD says the power line does open up the possibility for wind production, but says they have no plans for that at this time.
“If no wind development happens, that transmission line is still needed,” said Tom Kent with NPPD.
They say they’re aware of ranchers’ concerns, and plan to use some lattice towers and helicopter construction to minimize damage to the Sandhills ecosystem.
“I think they have valid concerns,”Kent said. “I think we are taking measured approaches to address those concerns.”
NPPD has already gotten 72 percent of landowners to sign an easement acquisition, that means they pay a certain percentage to build and maintain the line. If a rancher doesn’t agree voluntarily, NPPD can use eminent domain to seize the land, but they say that generally doesn’t happen. Ranchers say it’s an issue that’s dividing brother from brother.
“The R project and the wind turbines are splitting family and friends apart,” Coffman says.
Senator Brewer says it will be one of his priorities next legislative session to put a halt on wind energy in the Sandhills, at least until the full impact can be studied. Right now, the R Project construction is set to begin in 2018, pending an environmental review. Senator Brewer’s bill to put a hold on wind production is still in committee.
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